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Game 51 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Philadelphia Flyers

A beautiful scene.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
A beautiful scene. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Time: 1:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (28-19-3) at the Philadelphia Flyers (30-14-6)

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday, the Devils hosted what turned out to be a chippy, physical, and downright nasty at times hockey game. It started off very poorly for the Devils. Montreal bossed them around, got a shot in the net off a player in the crease and Andrei Kostitsyn was left literally all alone with Martin Brodeur in the slot. The Canadiens went up 2-0 and it looked bleak for the Devils. Carey Price gifted Zach Parise a goal by misplaying an easy shot to make the score close; but the performance on the ice showed Montreal was the better team. It got worse when Tomas Plekanec got a shorthanded breakaway largely thanks to Kurtis Foster and Mathieu Darche put in the rebound to make it 3-1. The Devils would fight back bit by bit. David Clarkson re-directed an Ilya Kovalchuk shot on their only effective power play situation of the evening to make it 3-2. In the third period, Dainius Zubrus tipped an Alexei Ponikarovsky shot past Carey Price to tie it up; Martin Brodeur came up big in the minutes afterward; and Zach Parise made the most of a shanked Kovalchuk shot to make it 4-3. The Devils tightened up against Montreal and Clarkson iced the game with an empty net goal to end it 5-3. The Devils took a lot of hits, but they wouldn't be knocked out. My late-due-to-technical-difficulties recap of that game is here.

The Last Flyers Game: While the Devils and Canadiens battled, the Flyers hosted Nashville. The Predators were hot, winning 9 out of their last 10 games and 5 in a row going into the game. Philadelphia, as is their wont, did not care. The home team just beat on the visitors for 60 minutes. Wayne Simmonds played out of his mind with a staggering 10 shots on net, scoring the team's first goal in the first period and a power play goal in the third period which then made it 3-1. Matt Read became the league's leader in rookie scoring after stealing a puck, faking a pass, and putting a shot through Andreas Lindback's legs. While Nashville did get one on the board before halfway through the third, the Flyers weren't fazed - especially not Ilya Bryzgalov, who stopped everything else. The Flyers won decisively 4-1. Travis Hughes has this recap of the game over at Broad Street Hockey.

The Last Devils-Flyers Game: It wasn't too long ago that these two played each other. Back on January 21, the Devils and Flyers met for an afternoon game at the Rock. The game itself wasn't the best of games to watch, with all kinds of passes and plays gone astray. The refs certainly had a lot to do as they called 19 different penalties between both teams. Needless to say, special teams were a feature of the game. Unfortunately for the Devils, the Flyers were absolutely on-point on special teams. Philly had no issues dealing with the Devils power play, which was just terrible. What made it stand out was their power play. They made the Devils' PK look pedestrian for a game, scoring twice to ultimately put the Devils away. Ponikarovsky did re-direct a shot past Bryzgalov for New Jersey after Philly's first PPG; but the Devils struggled to get rebounds or make life difficult for their goaltender in their 31 shots. The Devils lost 4-1; my recap of the loss is here.

The Goal: Play smart on special teams, or better yet, avoid getting into those situations in the first place. The last Devils-Flyers game was ultimately decided by who had the superior power play and penalty kill. Since that game, the Flyers have remained good on special teams. The Flyers can boast the league's fourth most successful power play at 20.9%. While they aren't shot machines in 5-on-4 situations with SF/60 of 49.3, no team has scored more than Philly's 43 goals in the standard man advantage. The Flyers have also been strong on the penalty kill. Their success rate of 82.9% is only around average in the league but they have the league's second best SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 situations at 39.9. Their PK would be better with better goaltending. The skaters, at the least, are quite good on special teams. Therefore, the Devils either need to be very good on their own special teams or avoid them as much as they can to keep the game at 5-on-5.

I have a few more thoughts on today's game after the jump. For an opposition point of view, please visit Broad Street Hockey.

The Devils have just played two physical games against New York and Montreal and for the sake of fatigue and health, it's unwise to go into Philly and try to bang with them for 60 minutes. However, as it tends to happen, it's not solely up to the Devils to make that choice. The Flyers have continued their tradition of playing with an edge. Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Max Talbot, Marc-Andrew Bourdon, Braydon Coburn, and so forth have the size and/or tenacity to bring some hard checks. I can't really fault the team for it; it's a part of the game provided the contact's clean. In any case, it only adds a further degree of difficulty for today's game and tomorrow's game.

In some way, I just hope the Devils get out of Philly with no further injuries. As it is, the Devils are going to be without Adam Larsson and Ryan Carter according to Tom Gulitti's report from Friday's practice. Larsson took a big and clean hit from P.K. Subban on Thursday night and suffered a bruise on his lower back. While the X-ray and MRI were negative, he didn't practice and won't play today. Carter's hand is sore and so the team is keeping him on the shelf. Adam Henrique didn't practice either so the groin strain keeps him out of a third straight game. Bryce Salvador didn't practice, but he also didn't practice on Wednesday and still played 21:07 against Montreal. Still, the Devils will be down another 20+ minute defenseman (remember: Henrik Tallinder is out with blood clots), a bottom six player who was playing center, an actual center who remains injured (on top of Travis Zajac still held out), and a third 20-ish minute defenseman who may not be 100%. It's not dire, but it's definitely not an ideal situation for the Devils. It'll mean Brad Mills will definitely play in place of Carter, Kurtis Foster and Matt Taormina will be active on defense, and the pairings will be mixed up again. All of this before a back-to-back set of games with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Great.

Even if the Flyers don't bring the physical pain, they can bring it on offense. The Flyers have generated 31.6 SF/60 this season in 5-on-5 play; in close-score situations, the team is at 51.34% Fenwick; most of their players do drive the play forward when it comes to on-ice Corsi per Behind the Net's individual player stats; and I've already noted how good their power play has been this season. Yeah, the Flyers are quite good at going forward.

2011-12 - Claude Giroux 46 19 38 57 0 23 5 0 5 136 14.0
2011-12 - Scott Hartnell 50 25 20 45 19 75 13 0 4 133 18.8

From a production standpoint, Claude Giroux far and away leads Philadelphia and he's second in the entire NHL in scoring with 19 goals and 38 assists. Scott Hartnell is not only the team leader in goals with 25 but only five players in the entire league has more goals than him as of Friday's games. They're the top threats on this Flyer team and if DeBoer needs to target any one line, it should be the one with these two on it. The offense isn't just the Giroux & Hartnell show. They're well supported by wingers Jaromir Jagr (12 G, 14 A) and Jakub Voracek (8 G, 20 A); rookies Matt Read (16 G, 16A) and Sean Couturier (10 G, 9 A); defenseman Kimmo Timonen (2 G, 30 A); and physical players like Simmonds (15 G, 14 A) and Talbot (12 G, 10 A). Keep in mind the Flyers have been without Danny Briere and James van Reimsdyk, as both are still recovering from concussions. Normally, missing two skilled players (Aside: Briere says he's getting closer to returning and both are skating according to this article by Sam Carchidi.) would hurt a team's offense; but the Flyers keep on putting them on and into the net. The Flyers can actively avoid physical play and still wail on a team with attempts, shots, and goals. That hasn't necessarily been the case against the Devils at evens this season based on this analytical post by Erik T over at Broad Street Hockey. My larger point remains the same, though: the Flyers offense is really, really good.

That doesn't bode well for the Moose. As Gulitti reported on Friday, Johan Hedberg will get the start for the Devils and I think he's going to be rather busy this afternoon. He's familiar with this kind of situation, so I'm not really concerned about his play in net. Outsider of the net, of course, the Moose is too loose with playing the puck. But seriously, how the Devils defense will perform has to be a concern. They were too inconsistent for my liking in the last two games, and since Adam Larsson is out, Kurtis Foster and Matt Taormina will definitely play. If they're chasing the orange and black around their own end of the rink, then it's not going to end well regardless who's in net. Good luck, Hedberg.

Their defense has been more average, though. Chris Pronger continues to suffer from the effects of a concussion as he hasn't played since mid-November. Timonen has been playing very well in his place in both ends of the rink. The problem is that behind Timonen, they aren't as impressive. Braydon Coburn has taken on the toughs along with Timonen, but he hasn't had the same amount of success Timonen has achieved. Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaroes both eat up a lot of minutes but they have been prone to making some serious errors from time to time. Their third pairing of Bourdon and veteran Andreas Lilja (who returned to action against Nashville) hasn't been terrible or all that good. The Devils would be smart to go hard on offense when Timonen's not on the ice. I just get the impression that this defense is like Boston's. They have one stud (Timonen), a bunch of other guys, and they let up a good amount of shots per game (29.6 SA/60 in 5-on-5 play, better than Boston's). Since the stud is expected to play well and usually does, the Devils need to get pressure on the others.

2011-12 - Ilya Bryzgalov 35 2009 19 10 5 96 2.87 942 846 .898 1
2011-12 - Sergei Bobrovsky 19 1016 11 4 1 41 2.42 504 463 .919 0

As far as whether the Devils will be successful in getting shooting opportunities past the goaltender, that's another story. The Devils really didn't get to the net all that often in the last game against Philly nor did they give Ilya Bryzgalov a lot to worry about in terms of screens. Fortunately, the Devils have achieved offensive success with 7 goals against goaltenders in their last two games. They should at least have some confidence on offense. Unfortunately, Bryzgalov has been playing better than his season's stat line should indicate. Granted, he allowed 5 goals against Boston on the very next day after holding New Jersey to one. It was the only game in his last five starts that he allowed more than one goal. So you may see that sub-90% save percentage and think the Devils are going to test the lifetime of their goal lamps, but his recent form suggests otherwise. Of course, that's presuming he does play at all. Like the Devils, the Flyers have a game on Sunday. The Flyers may choose to play Sergei Bobrovsky instead. While he hasn't had the majority of starts, he has been quite good this season in his 19 appearances. He's been particularly good at even strength with a save percentage of 93.1%. Philadelphia has the good problem of a big name goaltender performing well in recent games and a younger back-up who's been playing well all season. Hopefully, the Devils can get into the slot and around the crease more often regardless of who they see in net. Whichever goaltender will likely easily stop straight-up shots on net.

One thing to look for is a new look on the Devils' top line. DeBoer has told Gulitti that he intends to start Patrik Elias in between Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. We saw some of this on Thursday night. I can't say for certain how well it worked; but it's not a bad idea given the injuries and slow starts in the past two games. Dainius Zubrus hasn't really meshed well in between the two wingers, and Elias has been very good all season. Putting the top scorers together to at least start the game is a decent idea. Kovalchuk and Parise have been quite good on their own, I don't think Elias' presence would mess that up. If it doesn't work, DeBoer will just make a change and we move on. Since the Devils are on the road, he might have to make that change to salvage a potential second line would become Petr Sykora, Zubrus, and David Clarkson. That's not exactly a great group on paper and the idea of them getting matched against Philly's top forwards concerns me. Again, if it isn't fruitful early on, then it won't last.

The Devils will certainly have a challenge on their hands. Sure, no game is really easy in this league. Still, consider the situation. They're playing a quality opponent, said opponent is 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, the Devils are more banged up on defense which hasn't been all that sharp as of late, and the team we love is in the midst of a tough and compact two-week schedule. As a final point, it wouldn't be the worst idea in the world if the Devils got beyond regulation. This is the part of the season where the Devils really do need to get every point possible, so getting at least on helps. Plus, the Devils aren't directly competing with the Flyers in the standings as Philly is 7 points and 3 spots ahead of them in the conference. A three point game with them really doesn't hurt New Jersey's cause. Moreover, the Flyers have been pretty poor in the shootout. They're 1-4 this season and they've only scored 5 total goals in the post-overtime decider. If the Devils can somehow stretch the game to get that point, then we should feel pretty good about what happened today. Of course, if the Devils can beat on Philly in 60 minutes, then great. I'm just saying staying tied after 60 or not getting a ROW isn't a bad result.

That's my view on today's game, now I want to know yours. Will the Devils get through this game without any more players getting hurt? What do you make of Philadelphia as a team? Can their offense be contained? Can the Devils get through Philly's defense beyond Timonen, and would it even matter based on their goaltending? What do you think the Devils need to do to win (other than the obvious: score more goals than them)? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.